Nov. 11, 2010
NACOGDOCHES, Texas -
The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjack basketball team returns only five players from last year's 23-9 campaign. Of those five, three are junior college transfers in just their second year at the Division I level. That gives the Lumberjacks a combined eight years of D-I college basketball experience heading into Friday's season opener against Howard Payne. That figure is tied for the 10th-lowest total in the nation this year.
So why are the Lumberjacks the odds-on favorite to win the Southland Conference West Division and - in most preseason publications - the league's overall title? The early optimism can be attributed to the quality, if not the quantity, of SFA's returning players.
The 'Jacks bring back five lettermen from 2009-10, all of whom contributed to the team's success. Four of the five -- Eddie Williams, Jereal Scott, Jordan Glynn and Denzel Barnes -- were starters, and Mark Gomillia played a key role off the bench for SFA down the stretch. Williams and Scott were both All-Southland honorees a year ago, and Williams has been named to the preseason all-conference team.
Another cause for the high expectations is simply that SFA has consistently dealt with roster turnover in a positive way. The Lumberjacks have seven newcomers on the 2011-10 roster. Three years ago, when they won their first-ever Southland title, they had nine. Last year, when SFA finished second in the conference and reached the championship game of the Southland Tournament, the roster had seven new faces on it. In short, 11th-year head coach Danny Kaspar has been here before. And history suggests his team can handle it.
"I feel good about it, but it may take a little while, just like last year," the coach said. "Last year I think we had six guys coming back and we brought in six or seven. It took us a little while to get going, but once we got going they were rolling at a pretty good speed and we won 23 games. ... I'm cautiously optimistic and confident that we've got as good a chance as anybody to win the league this year if we don't get injured and our attitudes stay right."
The five returning players will all start; Barnes at point guard, Williams at the off-guard spot, Gomillia as the small forward, Glynn at power forward and Scott at center. Barnes, Williams, Gomillia and Glynn are all seniors, and Scott is a fourth-year junior, having redshirted as a freshman.
Barnes started seven games last season for injured point guard Eric Bell and averaged a healthy 18.5 minutes per game. He played nearly 33 minutes per contest over the final six games, when he started every night. Barnes finished the year with 5.6 points and 2.3 assists per game.
"In Denzel Barnes we have our best scoring point guard probably since Marcus Clark," Kaspar said. "Denzel can shoot the basketball. We need him to run our team in addition to that. ... His ability to run the team and the way he handles defensive pressure are going to be very important for us. But Denzel is going to add a new dimension to our attack in that people are going to have to be aware of his scoring abilities."
Williams was the top scorer on last year's team, averaging 13.3 points per game, and his 5.9 rebounds per contest were second on the squad. He did his damage from the small forward spot last season but will start this year at shooting guard. It doesn't mean he'll stay there, though.
"Eddie's one of the most versatile players I've ever coached," Kaspar said. "He can play the one, two or three."
Williams' all-around skill set makes him a valuable commodity, heading into his senior year, a fact acknowledged by his selection to the Preseason First-Team All-Southland list.
"Eddie Williams is, if not my favorite player I've ever coached, he's definitely in the top three or five," Kaspar said. "He is a hard-working, team-minded player who can do a lot of things well. Eddie is probably our best leader on the team."
After transferring from Neosho County Community College, where he won Jayhawk Conference East Division MVP honors as a sophomore, Gomillia played sparingly early in 2009-10. But he came on late to average 16 minutes and nearly five points per game over the final seven contests.
"When Mark started doing a lot of the things I asked him to do, he went from playing five minutes a game to about 18 minutes a game," Kaspar said. "And he played a very key role in some big victories for us."
Glynn was the lone newcomer in the SFA starting lineup early last season. And he wound up starting all 32 contests and leading the team in rebounding with 8.3 boards per contest. That's the best rebounding average for a Lumberjack since the 1995-96 season. Glynn posted 11 double-doubles on the season.
"Jordan Glynn is my junk-yard dog," Kaspar said. "...We have two of the greatest warriors I've ever coached on the same team in Eddie Williams and Jordan Glynn. They're going to battle you on every possession. Jordan is a great rebounder. He is the consummate team player, and he's improved his shooting skills to where I feel confident with him knocking down the 17-footer. Where he averaged eight points a game last year, I expect him to average 10 to 12 this year. Jordan Glynn is a very key component of this year's team."
Scott is coming into his second season as the Lumberjacks' starting center. His debut campaign was a success, as he averaged 12.8 points per game (second on the team) and 5.5 rebounds.
"Jereal is a good offensive player," Kaspar said. "He has a nice shot from 15 feet, he has some nice moves around the basket. He has to get more physical and play better defense. That's where I'm looking for some improvement from Jereal. If our post defense is improved this year, I think we have a chance to be very good."
Scott's play in the post will be particularly critical when one considers that he is the only true center on this year's roster. That's an issue Kaspar thinks can be addressed by the versatility of his players, but it will depend upon significant contributions from the newcomers. Kaspar expects sophomore transfer Brandon Cutler to spell Scott at center. Cutler is listed as a power forward, but at 6-8, is the tallest player on the roster. Additionally, Glynn played center at McLennan Community College and is expected to help shoulder some of the load in the five spot this season.
Other newcomers who will figure into the mix early are Antonio Bostic at the shooting guard spot and Zac Downing at small forward and off-guard. Combined with Williams' ability to play both backcourt positions and small forward, Kaspar feels good about his ability to tinker with the lineup.
"Their versatility is helping me," he said. "We only have 12 on scholarship, but because of the versatility of those four players I think we're going to be okay."
Cutler is a Lawton, Okla., native who spent two seasons at Northern Oklahoma College-Tonkawa. He was hobbled by injuries, redshirting his first season and missing most of last year before returning to average eight points and six rebounds down the stretch.
Junior transfer Dion Prewster joins Cutler at the power forward spot. Prewster is originally from New Zealand but finished his high school education in the United States and is coming off a strong two-year career at San Jacinto College. He was a first-team selection to both the ETJCC and Region XIV teams as a sophomore, when he averaged a double-double with 14.3 points and 11.8 rebounds.
While versatile, Downing will play primarily at small forward. The transfer from Arizona Western College shot 40 percent from 3-point range a year ago when he helped his team to a 24-8 record. Freshman Amos Olatayo will also compete for minutes at the three spot. The Alief Elsik product was a McDonald's All-American nominee, and Kaspar calls him one of the most talented players he's recruited.
Bostic is a dynamic scoring threat from the shooting guard spot who followed Gomillia from Neosho County to Nacogdoches. After redshirting his rookie campaign, he put up nearly 12 points per game as a freshman and shot better than 45 percent from behind the arc. True freshman Desmond Haymon will also compete for minutes at the two. The four-year starter at Williams-Sullivan High in Durant, Miss., averaged 30 points per game as a senior.
Freshman Darius Gardner will back up Barnes at the point. The Houston native was a four-year starter on a Yates High team that won consecutive state titles and was a consensus national champion in 2010. Gardner took all-state honors all four years of his career.
While Kaspar is optimistic about the lineup he'll employ, he added that it's the intangibles that often prove to be the difference.
"The key to us having a great year, I think, is staying healthy and leadership," Kaspar said. "Internal leadership. I've said that many times to our players. `We've got to have some leadership from you guys.' It can't all come from us. And I think we've got a group of guys who understand that."
The Lumberjacks will tip off the 2010-11 season Friday night against Howard Payne. The game is set for a 7 p.m. tip from the William R. Johnson Coliseum.
-- SFA --